As the state looks to replace the California High School Exit Exam with a new version, or eliminate it altogether as a graduation requirement, it remains difficult to find much consensus among educators, researchers and advocates regarding the legacy of the test for California.
Gov. Brown last week signed legislation that exempted students from the graduating class of 2015 from having to take the test in response to a snafu that left thousands of seniors without the ability to take the test several more times as permitted under state law. Still to be resolved is the bigger issue of the fate of the test itself, which may be partly determined by assessing its impact since it became a graduation requirement nearly a decade ago.
The California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) debuted in 2001 as an effort aimed at ensuring every student graduated from high school with basic skills and, as the California Department of Education spelled out, “to identify students who are not developing skills that are essential for life after high school.”
Nearly 5 million students have taken the test since then. A majority of students passed on their first try, with an increasing number each year that the test has been administered.
Some, however, have struggled through multiple attempts before successfully completing it. About 249,000 students have failed the test since it became a graduation requirement in 2006.
Supporters of the exit exam say the exam has raised the bar for graduation by encouraging students to work harder and pressured schools to increase their efforts to close the achievement gap.
Opponents argue that the test has discouraged some low-achieving students from staying in school and that it disproportionately punished low-income children and English learners who were unable to pass the test.
The research the state commissioned each year to evaluate the exit exam was generally positive about its impact, but other research reports were more critical. (For an overview of the research, see the end of this article.)
After an extended debate on the issue, Gov. Gray Davis signed legislation in 1999 to create the exit exam as a condition for students to receive a high school diploma. At the time, California joined a growing number of states that had such a requirement. By 2002, 24 states administered exit exams. Ten years later that number had grown to 26.
At the time he signed the law, Davis said the exam would add value to a diploma by ensuring students showed competency in math, reading and writing before they finished high school.
Students were tested on their aptitude in 10th-grade English and algebra, which students typically took between the 8th and 10th grade. Students could first take the test as sophomores, and if they didn’t pass, they could take it up to six more times before the end of their senior year. Even if they had not passed it by then, they could also take the exam up to three times in the year after their senior year and be awarded a diploma if they eventually passed.
The test was first administered to freshman students in 2001, and they were required to pass it before they graduated in 2004. By 2002, only four in 10 students from the class of 2004 had passed the test, prompting lawmakers to postpone it as a graduation requirement another two years.
About 91 percent of students in the class of 2006 passed by the end of their senior year, including 67 percent who passed on their first try as sophomores. By 2014, about 95.5 percent of seniors passed, including 90 percent who passed on their first try as sophomores.
But given California’s size, even a small percentage of students failing the tests translates into large numbers of actual students. Last year, for example, 4.5 percent of high school students couldn’t pass the test by the end of their senior year. That amounts to nearly 20,000 seniors.
Former state Superintendent Jack O’Connell authored the legislation that created the exit exam when he was a state senator in 1999.
“I didn’t want a high school diploma to only reflect a certification of seat time,” O’Connell, who served as state superintendent from 2003 to 2011, said in a recent interview. “It should mean something much more. It should reflect the education we are delivering to our students.”
O’Connell, now a partner at Capitol Advisors Group, a Sacramento-based consulting firm, said the exam helped educators better target which students needed the most support by funneling them into intervention programs that helped improve their overall academic success.
“If you talk with folks in the field, this is one of the most significant reforms in high school they’ve seen,” he said.
The former state superintendent said results that show a higher rate of students from at-risk groups passing the test by 2014 compared to 2006 proves the exit exam accomplished one of its biggest goals.
“I didn’t want a high school diploma to only reflect a certification of seat time. It should mean something much more,” said former State Superintendent Jack O’Connell.
In 2006, about 86 percent of low-income students, 73 percent of English learners, 85 percent of Latino students and 84 percent of black students passed by the end of their senior year. By 2014, about 94 percent of low-income students, 82 percent of English learners, 94 percent of Latinos and 92 percent of black students passed.
“This exam helped close the achievement gap,” he said.
O’Connell said he now supports Senate Bill 172, which proposes to suspend the exit exam through 2017-18 to give the state time to decide whether a new test should be administered that is aligned with the Common Core standards.
“It was never intended to go on indefinitely,” he said. “Once Common Core came in, I knew it would be the end for an exam that’s based on California’s previous state standards.”
Challenging the exam’s effectiveness
Critics have said there is little evidence the exam alone helped boost achievement of at-risk students. Some have said that other accountability systems implemented at the same time, including the federal No Child Left Behind Act and the state’s Academic Performance Index, contributed more to pressuring schools to improve achievement among all student groups. Instead, critics said, there is significant evidence the exit exam prevented many English learners, minority and low-income students from earning a high school diploma.
Arturo González, an attorney with the San Francisco law firm of Morrison & Foerster, filed a lawsuit in 2006 on behalf of a group of students from Richmond who sued the state in Valenzuela v. O’Connell, claiming poor and minority students were at a disadvantage because of sub-par teachers and resources in low-performing schools.
“This was a worthless exam,” González said. “The only thing it did was deny deserving students a diploma. In my view, it was more a political move by educators to show they were doing something.”
An Alameda County Superior Court judge in May of 2006 ruled that the exit exam could not be used to deny students a high school diploma, just three months after the lawsuit was filed. But the state Supreme Court reinstated the exam a few weeks later after the state appealed the lower court’s ruling.
González said the fact that the vast majority of students failing the exit exam are low-income, English learners, Latinos and blacks proves the assessment is flawed. Of the 19,679 students from the class of 2014 who did not pass by the end of their senior year, 68 percent were Latino, 49 percent were English learners and 77 percent were low-income, according to state Department of Education figures. (Some of these students fit into multiple categories.)
González said that if the state really wanted to improve achievement among at-risk students, it should have invested the millions of dollars it cost to create and implement the test on more AP courses, teacher training, after-school programs and tutoring in schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods.
Students without diplomas
Students at many school districts across the state who met all other graduation requirements except for the exit exam have instead been awarded certificates of completion, a diploma-like document that looks like a high school diploma and states that the student met all of their individual district’s graduation requirements. But the document does not carry the same weight as an actual diploma when applying to college or for jobs. It is not known how many districts offer certificates of completion in lieu of a high school diploma because the state does not track those numbers.
Most four-year colleges, including the University of California and the California State University systems, decide whether to admit applicants with certificates of completion on a case-by-case basis. Students without diplomas in districts that chose not to award certificates of completion are often encouraged to enroll in community colleges, which don’t require diplomas, or work toward passing the General Educational Development test, or GED, a high school equivalency exam.
“I’ve had so many doors of opportunity slammed in my face for not having my diploma,” said Telesis Radford, who could not pass the exam before the end of her senior year.
Arlene Holmes received her certificate of completion in 2012 from Prospect High School in Pleasant Hill in Contra Costa County. Holmes easily passed the English portion, she said. But the math proved too difficult.
“It is ridiculous how I actually worked extremely hard to even finish high school back in 2012,” she said.
Holmes, now 21, said not earning a diploma prevented her from enrolling in a vocational nursing program and other trade schools.
“I would have done a lot more with college and jobs because I am very capable,” she said. Holmes has received job offers, but was later told by human resource departments that they couldn’t hire her until she’s earned a diploma.
Telesis Radford received a certificate of completion from Santa Rosa High School in 2006 after failing the math section by just a few points.
“It was a sad and devastating day for me when I learned I wouldn’t receive my high school diploma,” Radford said. “I’ve had so many doors of opportunity slammed in my face for not having my diploma.”
Radford, now 27, was unable to enroll in a medical technician program, where she hoped to earn a phlebotomy license, which would allow her to work in a clinic or hospital drawing blood from patients.
“If I had my diploma, I would be in the medical field, and I would not be struggling like I am today to achieve and accomplish my dreams,” said Radford, who currently works as an administrative coordinator for the American Red Cross.
Lucinda Pueblos, assistant superintendent for K-12 performance and culture in Santa Ana Unified, said she has “mixed emotions” about the exit exam. Pueblos previously served as principal at Century High School, which also awarded certificates of completion.
While the exam overall set minimal expectations for students, it was still difficult for new English learners to pass the English section, she said. “It really did present a barrier for a lot of students.”
When the exit exam started, educators had to place a stronger focus on reading, writing and algebra in middle school in preparation for the test, said Pueblos, who also previously worked as a middle school principal. The pass rates improved, as students were better prepared.
She said the exam achieved its goal. “We were at least able to say they are at an 8th-grade level when they graduate,” she said.
Education Trust-West, an advocacy group for minority and low-income students, has generally supported the exit exam as another tool that helps increase the focus on struggling students.
“It prevented these students from being invisible,” said Carrie Hahnel, director of research and policy analysis at Education Trust-West. “It put responsibility and pressure on the system to help students.”
Hahnel said the yearly exam scores helped highlight the achievement gap for educators and policy makers. “The exam provided a lot of good data,” she said. “It also made the point that a high school diploma has to mean something, that you need these basic skills for college and careers.”
What the Research Shows
Human Resources Research Organization, or HumRRO, an independent evaluator, was commissioned by the state to review results of the exit exam each year since the program began. Its reports have generally been favorable, linking increased graduation rates and overall academic proficiency to the exit exam. The research group concluded in its most recent report in November 2014 that, “over fifteen years, we have seen test scores rise overall and for demographic groups defined by race/ethnicity and economic status. Graduation rates climbed, dropout rates declined, and successful participation in college entrance exams and Advanced Placement exams rose.”
HumRRO also reported that the exam has prompted schools across the state to create remedial opportunities for students who needed help passing it.
“Available evidence suggests that students have worked hard to meet the current (exit exam) requirement and that teachers have used class time to help them do so,” according to HumRRO’s latest report.
The report concluded that a higher rate of high school students are enrolling in advanced math courses, including geometry, intermediate algebra and calculus, as a result of the exit exam’s focus on algebra proficiency.
Still, HumRRO acknowledged that although scores for some minority groups, low-income students and English learners continue to improve, these students continue to lag significantly behind their peers.
A 2009 study by Stanford University professor Sean Reardon and UC Davis professor Michal Kurlaender concluded that the exit exam “has had no positive effects on students’ academic skills. Students subject to the (exam) requirement – particularly low-achieving students whom the exam might have motivated to work harder in school – learned no more between 10th and 11th grade than similar students in the previous cohort who were not subject to the requirement.”
The study compared 11th-grade scores on California Standards Tests, or CSTs, across years when the exit exam was a graduation requirement with years when it was not. On average, CST scores were slightly lower among students subject to the exit exam as a graduation requirement, according to the study. It also made the case that graduation rates of minority students who were struggling academically declined as a result of them failing the test – far more than the graduation rates of white students:
“The graduation rate for minority students in the bottom achievement quartile declined by 15 to 19 percentage points after the introduction of the exit exam requirement, while the graduation rate for similar white students declined by only 1 percentage point. The analyses further suggest that the disproportionate effects of the CAHSEE requirement on graduation rates are due to large racial and gender differences in CAHSEE passing rates among students with the same level of achievement.”
Reardon and Kurlaender said at the time that since the exam wasn’t working as it was intended, the state should consider eliminating it as a graduation requirement.
The Public Policy Institute of California released a study in 2008 that used the grades, test scores and behavior of 4th graders to reliably predict whether students would pass the exit exam. The study concluded the best way to ensure more students pass was to target intervention programs well before students begin high school. The study did not address the effectiveness of the exit exam.
Other studies over the years on exit exams nationally, including those from the Center on Education Policy and the Education Commission of the States, have also reported that the exams are most effective when states provide enough support to help struggling students eventually pass.
EdSource Today reporter Sarah Tully contributed to this report.
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